DES MOINES — A Senate panel on Tuesday approved an agriculture and natural resources budget bill that would fund up to 13 new state inspectors to beef up anti-pollution enforcement of Iowa waterways and stave off federal threats to take over the activities from state regulators.

The fiscal 2014 budget bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on a 12-8 party-line vote would appropriate $1.3 million for stepped-up enforcement as part of a nutrient management strategy and $2.4 million for an agriculture water quality initiative to assist farmers in cost-share efforts to promote conservation practices.

The budget measure favored by majority Senate Democrats would provide nearly $28 million more in funding for farm programs, environmental protection and natural resources preservation and enhancement than in the current state budget. Included would be $20 million for the state’s Resource Enhancement and Protection program, $2.9 million for state park operations and maintenance, $4 million for watershed improvements, $10 million for water quality projects and other increases financed via the state general fund and gaming profits deposited in the Environment First Fund.

“This is extremely important legislation,” Sen. Dennis Black, D-Grinnell, co-chairman of the ag/natural resources subcommittee, told panel members.

Sen. Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, GOP ranking committee member, said Republicans opposed the measure Tuesday because it only appropriates money for fiscal 2014, and they want a biennial budget that includes fiscal 2015 to avoid slipping back into bad budgeting practices that don’t take a long-term view of state spending. He said Republicans support the nutrient management strategy funded in the budget measure but added that the $28 million spike in this budget area provided some “heartburn” for GOP senators.

Also, Whitver expressed concern that Senate Democrats’ fiscal 2014 spending targets seek an 11 percent increase and they want to see how the ag/natural resources budget fits “in the bigger scheme.”

“We have to set priorities and make sure we spend less than we take in,” he said. However, Whitver noted that Republicans support Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey’s water quality initiative to assist farmers in cost-share efforts to promote conservation practices.

Northey included a request for $2.4 million in fiscal 2014 and $4.4 million in fiscal 2015 to finance an Iowa nutrient reduction strategy that he predicted would make the state a national leader in improving water quality by promoting voluntary farm conservation efforts. He also said it would show a good-faith effort that could head off pressure for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to take over regulation of clean-water violations that pollute lakes and rivers in Iowa and downstream waterways.

Chuck Gipp, director of the state Department of Natural Resources, has requested additional inspectors to monitor livestock operations and other “point sources” covered under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit program authorized in 1972 by the federal Clean Water Act.

Black noted that Gov. Terry Branstad and majority House Republicans have proposed $500,000 to fund five of the inspectors Gipp is seeking for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Senate Study Bill 1245 now goes to the full Iowa Senate for consideration, although expectations are that the budget area will end up in a House-Senate conference committee like many of the other budget pieces this session.

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